Top Catholic School told to halt admissions preference over parents' service in church community

Activities that could help pupil into London Oratory included reading lessons, serving at altar, singing in choir or flower arranging

Education Editor

The school to which Tony Blair sent his sons has been ordered to change its admissions policy after a watchdog ruled it was wrong to give priority pupils whose parents had been involved in activities like flower arranging or reading a lesson in their local church.

The Office of the Schools Adjudicator has told the London Oratory school, a Roman Catholic boys' comprehensive in Fulham, west London - which admits girls to the sixth-form - that it cannot give preference to pupils whose parents have given at least three years' service to their local church community.

The activities which could help a pupil secure a place under the code included reading, serving at the altar, singing in the choir or playing the organ or flower arranging.

David Lennard Jones, the adjudicator - who decides whether schools' admissions policies are within the rules, said he felt the practice was "unfair".

The school, one of the most oversubscribed in the country, has been sought after by many leading politicians in search of a state school for their children.

Both former Prime Minister Tony Blair and current Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have faced criticism for sending their children there on the grounds they have ignored their nearest comprehensives to seek a place at the Oratory. Critics of Mr Blair pointed out that it had sought grant-maintained status - opting out of local authority control - under the previous Conservative administration, a status Labour outlawed after winning the 1997 election.  They also claimed it used "covert" selection policies.

Other politicians who have sent children there include Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman and former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.

In his ruling, Mr Lennard Jones said the practice meant parents who wanted a place would have to start planning three years before applying.  "This process will favour those parents who are good at planning ahead and are sufficiently well organised to identify the admissions criteria, who ensure that they undertake the necessary activities and keep sufficient records to be able to evidence that they have done this," he added.

He asked whether it was unfair "for anyone to be required to be doing something for as long as four years before the timer of admission in order to gain priority"  and argued that it was opposed by the local Roman Catholic diocese, adding: "The families who this applies to would feel unfairly treated either because they were unaware of the requirement until the time of application (perhaps because they did not at the time live in the London area) and by then it was too late to change their practice  or because they were aware in time but did not feel that it was fair they should have to change their practice".

The service clause was one of four hurdles for applicants to clear and whittled the number of those qualifying for a place down from 800 to 265.  Only 160 places are available a year.

The school's admissions policy was also criticised on the grounds that it did not make it clear enough that a child who was a non-Catholic could be admitted if a place was available - although , in practice, it was conceded this was unlikely to happen because the school was so oversubscribed by Catholic parents seeking a place.

Its practice of asking for predicted GCSE grades plus an assessment of whether a candidate was ready for an A-level course before admission to the sixth-form was also outlawed because it could be construed as asking for a reference - forbidden in the admissions code.  The school was also told it should not ask foer a birth certificate before offering a place to a pupil.

This is the second time an adjudicator has ruled against the school's admissions policy. Earlier it had been criticised for for including cleaning as a service a parent could provide to help boost their chances of a place.

Richy Thompson, of the British Humanist Association - which made the objection to the school's policy, said: "This state-funded school is one of the most socio-economically selective in the country, taking in under 20 per cent as many pupils requiring free school meals as live in the area in which it is based.

"The degree to which the school's admissions criteria enabled social engineering to take place was appalling and we are very pleased these parts must now all be removed."

David McFadden, London Oratory's headmaster, said it was "perplexing" that the local Catholic diocese had supported the BHA's objection against the use of "good acts" as an oversubscription criteria, adding: "As a Christian faith and good acts go hand in hand."

He went on:  "Obviously the school is taking advice regarding the ... determination and considering its options, which include ultimately the right to appeal by judicial review."

It has agreed, though, to change its sixth-form practice, make it clear that non Catholics could be admitted and drop the requirement that a birth certificate should be provided prior to obtaining a place, according to the adjudicator.

The admissions code was brought in to try and outlaw schools covertly selecting pupils - by, amongst other things, interviewing parents and asking questions like "is there a suitable place in your home for your child to do homework?" - which was thought to rule out the children of parents living in poverty.

THE BREACHES OF THE CODE

The School's Adjudicator has ruled that London Oratory's decision to rank parents on their (or their children's) service to the Catholic Church was a breach of the code. Under this, they had to carry out activities such as reading (in church), singing in the choir or playing an instrument, serving at the altar or flower arranging.  One of the reasons why it should be outlawed, said the Schools Adjudicator, was because the three year period meant that they would have had to be doing it before they decided to apply for a place at the school. In addition, it was considered to be practical support for the church - which is disallowed under the admissions code.

The school was also considered to be in breach of the code for insisting on seeing "information about expected performance at GCSE and suitability for an A-level course" for those seeking to join its sixth-form.  This breached the code's insistence that schools should not have to provide a reference for pupils. The school has agreed to amend this.

The practice of seeing pupils' birth certificates before awarding a place was also considered a breach of the code. The school has also agreed to amend this, says the adjudicator.

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